Cyberbullying rarely the sole cause in teen suicides: Canadian research

A YouTube video posted by Amanda Todd, in which she detailed her abuse, went viral after her death. Screen grab/Postmedia News

TORONTO – While cyberbullying is gaining notoriety with some high-profile teenage suicide cases, new Canadian research suggests online tormenting isn’t the only factor at play, shedding light on other key issues that drive youth to kill themselves.

Researchers at Dalhousie University in Halifax tracked cases of youth suicides that have been linked to cyberbullying in Canada, the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom.

The scientists identified that so far, there have been 41 suicides connected to cyberbullying. Twenty-four of the cases were women and 17 were men, all between the ages of 13 to 18.

But John LeBlanc, a professor, pediatrician and lead researcher in the study, warns that the media often links cyberbullying to suicide without pointing to traditional bullying, learning problems or mental illness issues as contributing factors.

The tragic suicide of Amanda Todd, a 15-year-old B.C. teen, for example, put cyberbullying in the media spotlight with campaigns to stop online bullying.

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She posted a video on YouTube chronicling her years of being bullied. After her death, tormenters continued to leave nasty comments on memorial pages.

The 41 incidents studied share similarities beyond cyberbullying, LeBlanc told Global News.

“There’s no question that youth are now exposed to more social media than say, five years ago. However we don’t know if the individuals who committed suicide in 2005 were exposed to social media in a different manner from individuals who committed suicide in 2012,” he said in an email.

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Other factors contribute to youth suicide

Seventy-eight per cent of the cases studied showed that victims were bullied online and in person while 17 per cent of victims were targeted online.

Fifteen per cent of the victims had symptoms of depression and 32 per cent had mood disorders.

Nearly a quarter of the deaths resulted from homophobic bullying.

“Cyberbullying is a factor in some suicides, but almost always there are other factors such as mental illness or face-to-face bullying. Cyberbullying usually occurs in the context of regular bullying,” LeBlanc said.

Among the cases, the findings pointed to a spike in suicides between September and January, periods that mark the beginning of a new school semester.

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Twenty-three of the cases took place in the U.S., six in Australia, five in the U.K. and four in Canada.

Suicide linked to cyberbullying is also on the rise, according to LeBlanc’s findings.

Between 2003 and 2010, 56 per cent of the 41 cases took place, but by 2011 and the first quarter of 2012, there were 18 cases of suicide.

Defining cyberbullying

LeBlanc says that through online bullying, traditional forms of youth bullying have gone through a “terrible evolution” that extends into 24/7 activity leaving permanent records on the Internet.

He says that currently, there is no universally agreed upon definition but that most experts point to the same elements: an intention to harm, a power imbalance and repetition of the act.

Social media sites, such as Facebook and Formspring, were used in almost half of the cases while others included text messages, or even ‘sexts.’

While Facebook, out of all the social networking sites, was linked to cyberbullying most, Twitter and MySpace were also used.

Recommendations to stop cyberbullying

For starters, doctors and other health care professionals who see children and adolescents for any health issues should ask their patients if bullying is going on, LeBlanc said.

“I often find that parents weren’t aware when I’ve asked children about bullying,” he told Global News.

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Perpetrators of online bullying need to be held accountable too, he said.

“Anonymity is known to promote aggressive tendencies and I personally think that people should stand behind what they post about other people,” he said.

Victims need to know that “it gets better,” and that they can talk to teachers, guidance counsellors, friends or adults, including making use of services such as Kids Help Phone.


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